(January 3, 2019, is the centennial of Herbie Nichols.)
The basic Herbie Nichols discography is slender:
Three songs in 1952 with Danny Barker, Chocolate Williams, and Shadow Wilson.
Two 10-inch LPs with Al McKibbon and Art Blakey, The Prophetic Herbie Nichols volumes one and two, recorded 1955.
Two 12-inch LPs, Herbie Nichols Trio with Max Roach and either Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick, recorded 1955 and 1956, and Love Gloom Cash Love with George Duvivier and Dannie Richmond, recorded 1957.
More recently, Blue Note and Mosaic have unearthed more tunes and alternate takes. Many additional Nichols originals exist in manuscript form; some have been recorded by Nichols fans and scholars.
If I had to chose just one item from the Nichols oeuvre, I’d unhesitatingly pick Herbie Nichols Trio. Not only does it contain brilliant compositions and performances, but his extensive liner notes offer some of the most insightful commentary in the history of the music. (The scan above is hard to read, so the complete text is reproduced below.)
This setting is perfect for Max Roach. In 1955 there weren’t so many drummers that could handle these twists and turns. (Indeed, the very great Art Blakey occasionally just “plays through” the forms on the earlier Blue Note session.) It’s easy to bracket Thelonious Monk Trio on Prestige in ’54 and Herbie Nichols Trio on Blue Note in ’55/’56: Peak modernist piano with peak Max Roach.
Monk and Nichols knew each other in the 1940s. It seems like Monk influenced Nichols quite a bit, although they are also both simply descended from the same musical tree. (Nichols gave Monk some of his earliest press coverage, included in my centennial Monk overview.)
The Nichols originals on the Blue Note dates always have drum breaks after a short intro and before the tune proper. Perhaps the Monk intro on “Thelonious” from 1947 (also on Blue Note) with Art Blakey was a specific inspiration.
However, that same intro and drum break is also always used as an ending. Nobody did this but Herbie Nichols.
Nichols was a great pianist but an even greater composer. Each time I go back, I am shocked anew by the astonishing compositions.
If Nichols remains on the fringes of the music, then and now, it is probably connected to the piano playing. There can be something a tad imprecise and repetitive about the way Nichols tosses out certain atonal shapes while blowing. (There are those that accuse Eric Dolphy of something similar.) Nichols also keeps his themes in obvious view while improvising, and, unlike Monk (who also could just keep working over his tunes throughout a performance), sometimes it feels as if he’s treading water. When the forms are difficult, it’s possible Nichols is playing this way just to keep the rhythm section on track.
Listening to a bunch of Nichols in succession can be a little unsatisfying, It is better to just deal with a few of his astounding tracks in the context of a bunch of other groovy ’50s jazz. Again, the best mix of genre and highest level performance is inarguably on Herbie Nichols Trio.
Nichols’s own notes for the LP show awareness that he is in the middle of a process. If Nichols had gigged more regularly playing his own music and lived longer he would have had a chance put it all together and take it to the next level.
Any slight criticism is truly by the way, for the Nichols tunes didn’t need any shedding. Most of them are finished masterpieces. Any knowledgeable overview of jazz composition should include discussion of Herbie Nichols.
“The Gig” is as good as it gets, really.
Nichols mentored Roswell Rudd. I first heard this music in high school on the Mosaic box, which came with Rudd’s smart and soulful commentary. The one time I exchanged a few words with Rudd, I told him I adored his trombone playing, his overdubbed chimes on “Robes” with Steve Lacy, and the notes to the Herbie Nichols Mosaic box. It’s easy to draw a line from Rudd on Nichols to what I try to do here on DTM.
Rudd discusses “The Gig”:
One day he sat down and started to play a series of jolts, explaining as he went along, “It’s about a pick-up band…they’re not quite together here…and they play nine measures instead of 8, then it starts to get better…” This cracked me up…It was some kind of space-dixieland in the void between New Orleans and BeBop.
“House Party Starting” Nichols’s style is full of explicit references to stride pianists like James P. Johnson, and this slightly ominous number might acknowledge the Harlem “rent party” days. It’s as bluesy as hell but the key centers go far afield. Along with “The Gig,” “House Party Starting” is widely considered a perfect introduction to the fabulous sound world of Herbie Nichols.
“Chit Chattin’” begins with a cadence that really sounds like European classical music, down to the bowed bass. (Compare with Bud Powell’s “Glass Enclosure.”) A truly obscure tune follows. Rudd: “….More like IMBROGLIO IN BEBOP! He takes this opportunity to play back a lot of what was pouring in upon him night after night in those clubs: churning chatterboxing, stuttering, interjections, bursts of laughter and the general din. The ‘revenge’ of the composer; whatever it is, take it and immortalize it!”
“The Lady Sings the Blues” The oldest and the newest aesthetics are in constant dialogue. Written for Billie Holiday. Vocal versions generally have little to do with Nichols’s oblique trio statement.
“Terpsichore” is all tap dance and cinematic drama. The Latin elements bring out the Monkian side of things even more than usual: Nichols himself discusses a common “island” feeling in his notes. However, compare “Terpsichore” to Monk’s “Bye-Ya” to see the vast differences as well.
“Spinning Song” This has long been one of my favorite Nichols themes. Rudd writes, “It’s all miraculously summed up in the intro: the turning of the wheel and the weave of the yarn.” It’s also one of the greatest Max Roach performances.
Like the Monk Blue Notes, the bass chair is not so important on the Nichols Blue Notes. Al McKibbon’s beat is good but his pitches can seem random, an effect that admittedly may have an esoteric charm. However, I guess I think Teddy Kotick is a shade more musical than McKibbon overall.
“Wildflower” This rhythmically and harmonically abstract theme (Rudd calls it bitonal) would have been perfect for an “inside/outside” Blue Note date ten years in the future. Fascinating to imagine Nichols with an Andrew Hill rhythm section, for example Richard Davis and Joe Chambers…
“Hangover Triangle” Burns along with unexpected phrasing. Nichols’s gruff untempo blues riffs sound like they are being played backwards or out of sequence, reminiscent of a “talking” tenor like Eddie Lockjaw Davis or Lucky Thompson.
“Mine” A surprise inclusion of Gershwin. Is this a joke? No, according to Rudd, Nichols regarded Gershwin as American’s greatest composer. Still, this reading is not completely straight-faced either. While the laid-back intro is a superb blindfold test (I’d never guess it was Nichols at first), soon enough the scattered flourishes begin. When not navigating his own dense music, his default improvising style comes out just as clearly, a son of Art Tatum who stays reasonably close to the melody in every chorus.
“Query” Out of sequence on this page but the last track recorded for Blue Note. Nichols plays coy in his otherwise revealing notes, giving this song only a quick mention: “…Almost a light, jazz exercise. It’s an attempt to answer a tense, simple question with musical notes.”
Rudd writes, “This was a great way to wrap it up, Nichols-style: questioning, questioning, the quest, the query. The same guy who often said, ‘If we ever stop delving, it will be the end of civilization.'”
I’m not so sure. This remarkable piece doesn’t give up its secrets easily. A philosophical side of Black bebop and ’50s jazz is a kind of hopelessness, something perhaps aligned with movements like nihilism and existentialism. This aspect is rarely seen clearly by an outsider, it’s just a tiny bit of texture completing a complex artistic trajectory. In “Query” I wonder if that texture has become the topic.
Usually, one can’t miss the light and shade in a Nichols composition. “The Gig” is a perfect example: a bit humorous, darker currents far beneath, every corner handled with compositional care.
In “Query” Nichols is brutally inelegant. The intro begins in severely unswinging fashion. The “A” melody is a student exercise on Monk and Denzil Best’s “Bemsha Swing.” The mariachi bridge goes on too long with problematic tension and release. The Horace Silver wrap-up is barren, where the left hand almost gets out of sync before fading away.
Nichols never plays that heavy, but here he’s really just barely putting down the notes, a ghost at the keyboard.
“Query” is resolutely in pure C major, with an occasional blaring dominant #11 chord to remind us that this is, “Jazz!” However, the final cadence of the tune avoids that garish signpost. The form concludes with a non-garish 6/9 chord, and I feel unaccountably sad.
Liner notes to Herbie Nichols Trio by Herbie Nichols:
When Alfred Lion, the producer of this album, asked me to write about the logic behind my jazz style and how I create, I simply rolled up my sleeves and waded into a typewriter for a welcome change.
First of all, I would like to state that having been born (January 3, 1919) and raised in Manhattan almost gives me a feeling of being cognizant of a type of music that might even be called New York jazz. My parents came to these shores from St. Ketts and Trinidad and were part of the large influx of British subjects who settled in Gotham during the period of the first World War. The first songs that I ever heard were “Sly Mongoose,” “The West Indian Blues,” and similar other chants. In the subculture of this particular environment my early diet and upbringing were quite special things. (As a matter of fact, I’ve written a couple of calypsos entitled “Crackup” and “I Worship Delilah” which are funny as all getout.) Perhaps that is why I’ve always particularly enjoyed the exotic styles of Denzil Best and Thelonious Monk, in whose music I can trace this influence of my youthful years.
At nine years of age I began the study of classical piano with Mr. Charles L. Beck. These lessons continued well into my high school years at DeWitt Clinton. It was during these years that I received my introduction into the mysteries of jazz piano with the help of the late pianist, Roy Testamark. (Testamark was the pianist in the Three Flames and died of a heart attack at 32. — ed.) Around 1937 I was good enough to join a wild and precocious teen-age aggregation headed by a fellow named Freddie Williams. I can recall that each member of the orchestra had to write mystifying scores which had to be played — or else.
As a jazz composer, I’ve always felt that I should paint as clear a mental picture as possible of the foundation and the future of jazz music. That is why I draw freely, at times, from early New Orleans pianist, Jelly Roll Morton, who witnessed and took part in the birth of this folk music. I have examined his scores and have had many happy moments listening to his Circle recordings from the Library of Congress Archives. Jelly was an honest extrovert who used the freedom of jazz piano to tell the story of his love of life and the historic times in which he lived.
I guess I’ve always had a burning desire and compulsion to compose. Ideas come from almost anywhere. Beethoven and Bach and Chopin are the strong musical pillars which I lean on whenever I find myself in a dark corner. Hector Villa-Lobos’ many compositions under the title Choros and Bachianas Brasileras are infinite fantasies which bear repeated listening. Whenever I want to become astounded, there is always his great piano work, Rudepoêma. Among the jazz greats Duke Ellington and Art Tatum are unfailing giants to look up to in wonder. Dimitri Mitropoulos is another one of those calm musicians who intrigues me with his catholic tastes and abilities. I listen repeatedly to Bartók’s delightfully brooding Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 1, also the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Le Sacre Du Printemps just about wind up the basic core of music which I can never do without.
Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish. That is why I wrote in the February, 1956 issue of Metronome: “Think of what can be done with the sounds of the multiple counterpoint of Hindemith, the neo-classic polytonality of Shostakovitch and Piston and the melting of the vast musical devices which Bartók loved to use at random and which makes his kaleidoscopic style come closest to jazz.”
But jazz has come a long way since “the stomp.” A lot of myths have been dispelled and we find countless master jazzists who are masters of classical music as well. Time signatures are freely altered nowadays. For instance, I am beginning to learn that certain tunes that I write cannot become alive, even for one chorus, unless I score the drum part fittingly. Specific suspensions and inversions must be explicitly indicated or else I find that there is no “sound.”
But there is nothing mystical about becoming a graduate jazzist. One should be willing to enjoy and study all of the great jazz musicians of the past and present. In addition, each one of these artists’ limitations should be pinpointed and analyzed. As a lover of chess I would predict an easy and rewarding individuality as the outcome of these drudging moves.
There are reasons why the best jazz must “sound” — the same as it did in the beginning. I keep remembering that the overtones of “fifths” created by the beautiful tones of any ordinary tuned drum was surely the first music, the precursor to the historic major scale, no less, which was built on the same principles. That is why the cycle of “fifths” is so prevalent in elemental jazz. In other words, in a great desire to “sound,” the beginner of improvisation grasps at easy and fundamental aural pleasures.
And so, after tracing this elementary history of “sound,” we can readily understand why drummers started to “drop bombs” to usher in the new music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Each “bomb” created a newly rich and wholly unexpected series of overtones beginning in the lower registers. These rich syncopations were fitting accompaniments to the supplemental overtones played by the horns in the higher registers. That is why the pianists became so percussive with their left hands.
Among modern drummers, Art Blakey is considered invaluable. He astounds me when it comes to being in tune. I can hear overtones from his snare drum, cymbals, rimshots, everything he touches. Sometimes he “pounds” some of these recalcitrant instruments in tune when the atmosphere is unsteady. I’ve see Denzil Best rub his bass drum head with a damp cloth at the start of a gig. He spoke of a “whoooosh” effect which he sought. This effect which he achieves plus his musical discipline makes him one of the best tubmen around today. I’m sure that this is also one of the prime reasons for Sonny Greer’s great value to the Ellington orchestra for so many years.
The jazz “sound” is surely a living thing and as a piano player I find it mostly in old “uprights.” Sometimes these faded pianos with muted strings, strange woodwork and even “innards” have a way of giving up fast and resonant overtones. Each note shoots back at you like a bass drum. In such a situation, as soon as I find that I am not financially liable, I let myself go and use any kind of unorthodox touch needed to dig out the strange “sounds” which I know are in the instrument. The only respectable piano that gives up this kind of intimate “jazz sound” in an easy and copious manner is the Steinway upright.
“The Gig” is all about a happy, modern jam session. The 67-bar chorus speaks of the “vonce” and avant garde happenings. In the first nine bars I was able to complete a fair picture of the charged and impatient proceedings. The trill leading to the excitement of the release is probably the most fitting piece of melody that I ever dreamed up.
In “House Party Starting” the simple, quiet triad of the tonic with neighboring notes, which is found in the very first measure, speaks of grave and silent doubts as to whether there is really going to be a party, whether there is going to be lots of fun. There is supposed to be a rising crescendo as more people enter the shindig to the accompanying noise of broken glassware and shuffling feet.
My brother, Austin, suggested “Chit-Chatting” as a theme song after hearing the strong part given to the left hand in the release. This busy melody depicts the general buzz of voice in a crowded night club or similar gathering. The combined melody and rhythm also attempts to pick out a conversation here and there.
“The Lady Sings the Blues,” originally called “Serenade,” is a bluesy, rhythmical tune in which one can almost hear the legendary strumming of the heart-strings. The great Billie Holiday, upon hearing it one night, fell in love with it and immediately began to make up her own earthy, inimitable lyrics. The Lady Sings the Blues is also the title of her recently published biography by Billie Holiday with William Duffy. “Lady Day” recorded the tune for Norman Granz in June, 1956.
“Terpsichore” was written with the great Teddy Hale in mind. Whenever I see and hear this great dancer I come away gladdened because I know that he is a great jazz voice. But I must also give a deep bow of appreciation to dancer Baby Lawrence whose artistry is peerless.
Side two opens with “Spinning Song,” a tune which tells a tale of living from week to week: how we all begin each new round of our lives with a bold, knockout punch. We spin out our days in alternating songs of triumph and the blues. The last two notes of the melody seem to state philosophically, “That’s life.”
“Query” is almost a light, jazz exercise. It’s an attempt to answer a tense, simple question with musical notes.
“Wildflower” tells the story of a diamond-in-the-rough at a social function. It tells about an ordinary dancing girl who suddenly reveals all sorts of charms to an otherwise drowsy male as she passes by. The rich, explosive, ascending melody of the first measure heralds the recognition of unbelievable beauty.
“Hangover Triangle” was composed on a park bench one weekend summer night. The site was really no more than an open triangle formed by converging streets. Everyone around me seemed determined to have a ball far into the night. Too many drank too deeply of the revelry, resulting in a lot of comical antics which, at least, inspired a very funny title.
“Mine” is the wonderful George Gershwin tune from the musical revue Of Thee I Sing. It is the sort of a tune that I wish I had written.
It was a pleasure to make these recordings with the matchless drummer, Max Roach. He is a buoyant instrumentalist of tremendous strength and discipline, one who has mastered every facet of the jazz art. Bassist Al McKibbon reminds me of Art Blakey when it comes to a “jazz sound.” The greatest compliment that I can pay him is to state that his bass work seems to sound like a set of tuned drums. Bassist Teddy Kotick is another profound personality whose iron musical discipline reminds me of Max Roach. He is capable of making any piece of music come alive.
In ending I would like to state that I am in a constant race to make my “classical theories” catch up to my “jazz theories.” It used to be the other way around. But I am rather satisfied that I find no dearth of ideas when it comes to writing. At the piano I’m always sufficiently transported to new spiritual heights whenever I think of the beauties of any tuned drum. — HERBIE NICHOLS
If you want to support Do the Gig and Do the Math, subscribe to Transitional Technology.